On the evening of  30 May 1593, Christopher Marlowe was killed with a knife to the eye by Ingram Frizer. Accompanied by Nicholas Skeres and Robert Poley, they had spent the entire day together eating, talking and walking in the garden of Eleanor Bull’s house in Deptford before the playwright met his violent end. In retrospect, this was a brilliant career move by the 29 year old, as his premature death conferred on him a star status over four hundred years later. The same age as Shakespeare, the two writers are often compared, which leads admirers of his plays to wonder what he could have gone on to create, had he survived: by 1593, both playwrights had produced seven plays each (pinning these plays down to a specific date is notoriously difficult; Marlowe dying does, however, give us a rather definitive end-date for his writing career…)

Painting believed to be of 21 year old Christopher Marlowe., 1585, painter anonymous. Belongs to Corpus Christi College Cambridge.

Painting believed to be of 21 year old Christopher Marlowe., 1585, painter anonymous. Belongs to Corpus Christi College Cambridge.

Marlowe had popularised the ‘mighty line’ of blank verse on the stage, and his plays were peopled with over-reachers such as Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine. As with Shakespeare, Marlowe’s plays have been mined for biographical hints to confirm what we know- or what we think we know- about the writer. An Elizabethan Icarus, Marlowe is portrayed as living a dangerous life: quick-tempered, a free-thinker, lover of boys and tobacco, embroiled with the secret services, and killed in a pub brawl after an argument about the bill. Much of this posthumous reputation is, however, created by half-truths moulded by our love of intrigue and a good ‘whodunnit’ murder mystery.

Already, only a few years after Marlowe’s death, one rumour was being circulated. In Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia (1598) Marlowe is compared to: Étienne Jodelle, “a French tragical poet beeing an Epicure, and an Atheist, made a pitifull end, so our tragicall poet Marlow for his Epicurisme and Atheisme had a tragicall death.” Not only does Meres imply that Marlowe deserve his ‘tragicall death’ for his suspect lifestyle, but he also suggests a reason for his murder: “As the poet Lycophron was shot to death by a certain rival of his: so Christopher Marlow was stab’d to death by a bawdy Servingman, a rivall of his in his lewde love.”[i]


The Official Story:

The inquiry into Marlowe’s death was only rediscovered in 1925 by Leslie Hotson, amid the papers of the British Public Record Office. As the century wore on, various other documents surfaced, relating Marlowe’s brushes with the law, apparent connection to Francis Walsingham’s spy-network, and posthumous statements about his ‘scoffing’ and immoral behaviour. Rather than clearing up the details of how and why Marlowe was killed that May evening, these documents instead opened the floodgates to decades-worth of speculation and conspiracy theories, which show no sign of abating. Possibly the only rumour-quashing element of the inquiry was that Eleanor Bull’s house was shown not to be a tavern, but rather the private house of a widow who, as was common practise at the time, had a license to sell food and provide accommodation in her home. (In fact, Marlowe’s father obtained just such a license to ‘keep common victualling in his now dwelling-house’ in Canterbury in 1604.) The four men were also described as having been at the house since 10am, and had spent the afternoon ‘in quiet sort together’.

The official story told in the inquiry, is that Marlowe and Frizer exchanged ‘malicious words’ over the bill or ‘le recknynge’. A violent Marlowe took Frizer’s knife and attacked the latter, who was hemmed in behind a table, between Skeres and Poley, and therefore unable to move. Frizer is then meant to have got the knife off Marlowe, and somehow managed from this awkward position, to deliver the fatal wound. The jurors at the inquiry agreed that Frizer “killed and slew Christopher Morley aforesaid on the thirtieth day of May….in the defence and saving of his own life”, after which Frizer was sent to prison to await a pardon from the queen for breaching the peace, which he received in only four weeks.[ii]

The account is suspicious to say the least. Why is there only one weapon in this violent struggle? How, given Marlowe’s advantageous position, did the surprised defendant manage to disarm the playwright? Was he not supposedly pinned between Skeres and Poley, sitting on a bench behind the table so that “in no wise could [he] take flight”? How did he manage to deliver a wound of two inches in Marlowe’s right eye at this angle? What on earth were Skeres and Poley doing? If it was an accident, then wouldn’t it have been possible for the three of them to have disarmed Marlowe of the knife, and restrain him? Why do we not hear from Eleanor Bull in this matter?


A Political Assassination?

It feels as if the defendants were trying to cover something up. Hardly any biographer of Marlowe has been satisfied with this version of events, and for good reason. It is in 1928, that we have the first suggestion that the stabbing was not a drunken row, but in fact a political assassination. In The Assassination of Christopher Marlowe, Samuel Tannenbaum is suspicious about the precision of the fatal wound, which is described as being delivered ‘above the right eye’: a far more likely cause, as the coroner and barrister, Gavin Thurston concluded, was that the knife went in between the eyeball and eyebrow, severing the internal carotid artery.[iii] In any case, Tannenbaum thinks that such a wound could not have been delivered accidentally “if Frizer and Marlowe had been wrestling as the witnesses reported,” and instead that this indicated a premeditated murder. [iv]

This may well be the case, but Tannenbaum then suggests that this was an assassination on behalf of Walter Raleigh, who needed Marlowe silenced over the activities of Raleigh’s atheistic society, the School of the Night. In his biography, The Reckoning (1992), Christopher Nicholl also thinks that Raleigh was a cause of Marlowe’s death, though this time that the three men were sent by the earl of Essex, a political rival of Raleigh’s, to persuade Marlowe to give evidence against him, and when Marlowe refused and became potentially violent, they killed him. All four men had political and espionage connections to the Walsinghams, the earl of Essex and Poley had been involved in unmasking the Babington plot.  A year after Nicholl’s groundbreaking biography, Anthony Burgess drew similar conclusions in his historical novel Dead Man in Deptford (1993). With the freedom of fiction, Burgess could of course elaborate on the facts, and portrayed Marlowe as the lover of his patron, Thomas Walsingham. Marlowe and Poley arrange to meet at Deptford to discuss another spying job, but this is a set-up, and Frizer murders Marlowe out of his personal hatred and disgust for Marlowe’s relationship with Thomas Walsingham.

A later conspiracy theory is that Marlowe was assassinated because he was considered a danger to the state for his atheistic beliefs, and even that his death may have been ordered by Queen Elizabeth herself. In The Killing of Christopher Marlowe (2000), David Riggs suggests that Marlowe was murdered as part of a state crack-down on disobedient subjects. Even Nicholl, having previously put the death down to political in-fighting between courtiers, leans more towards this conclusion in his revised edition of The Reckoning in 2002. While not accusing the queen of involvement, Nicholl suggests that it was an assassination motivated by the various accusations of atheism that were being made against a group of men, including Marlowe, in 1593.

As with the theories surrounding Raleigh and Essex, this argument seems persuasive at first because it is based on readings of contemporary documents. It is true that in 1593 there were investigations into ‘atheistic’ libels that had been posted around London, which along with the ‘Dutch Libel’, a xenophobic poem posted on the door of the Dutch Church in May, were seen as a threat to the public peace. Marlowe has often been associated with the Dutch Libel, as it is signed by ‘Tamberlaine’ [sic], and contains references to Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta. But what does this prove? That Marlowe wrote this note, or that someone else was making contemporary references to these two popular stage plays? As part of this political atmosphere, the playwright Thomas Kyd, and one Richard Cholmeley had been brought in on the suspicion of writing the ‘atheistic’ libels. Kyd then implicated Marlowe, however he was released shortly after. His release can suggest a variety of things: that the Privy Council did not believe that he was a risk, or that he had influential friends, or that he was so much of a threat, that he was released so that he may accidentally-on-purpose be silenced for good.

The problem with the final option is, why go to all that trouble? In fact, the problem with all of the conspiracy theories, is that they are incredibly ‘Marlowecentric’.[v] Looking for an answer to “why was Marlowe killed?” such theories prefer a ‘dispositional’ explanation, which puts the personality of an individual- in this case, Marlowe- at the centre, rather than a ‘situational’ explanation, which looks at contextual and environmental factors. As Emma Smith explains, the same problem is apparent in conspiracy theories behind the ‘Shakespeare authorship’ debate.[vi]

Living 400 years after the event, and knowing how good a writer Marlowe was, it is understandable that we have him at the centre of these theories, and yet we ignore the context: Marlowe was not of so much importance as a playwright to attract the attentions of the Privy Council or indeed the Queen: even the argument that he may have been important as a spy, if not a playwright, doesn’t hold much water as there is only conjectural evidence that he was even involved in the equivalent ‘Elizabethan secret service’. Marlowe was not important enough for him to be murdered secretly: if he was considered to have been a danger, the Privy Council would surely have had no qualms with torturing him, as had been the case for Kyd, or executing him as a criminal. J.A. Downie extends the logic of such conspiracy theories which place Marlowe at the centre:

the Dutch Church libel [would have to be] not simply another example of the extensive English xenophobia evident at this time but…‘cooked up’ as a deliberate attempt to point the finger of suspicion at Marlowe….the purpose of Kyd’s arrest and interrogation was to incriminate Marlowe…his death warrant was effectively signed the moment the Queen commanded that the investigation into atheism be prosecuted ‘to the full’…[vii]

This is not to say that Marlowe was not thought to be espousing some heterodox religious views at the time. The most important point is that the more vociferous accusations of ‘atheism’ and questionable morality were made only after Marlowe was dead. Beforehand, it was only Kyd who under torture implicated Marlowe, and even then he was let off. It is only after Marlowe’s death that Kyd elaborates on Marlowe’s atheism and ‘scoffing’ along with Chomeley and Richard Baines, all of whom had been accused of, and in Baines’ case, had previously admitted to ‘atheism’ themselves. Given that Marlowe was dead, it seems reasonable that these men would try and move the blame onto him.


Authorship debate

The final conspiracy theory truly is the stuff of fantasy: Marlowe was not murdered that day; it was a set-up to allow him to escape and continue his life incognito, writing the plays that we later attribute to Shakespeare. As you may know, the issue of whether it was Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I, or Professor Plum in the library with a piece of lead piping who wrote these plays is still hotly contested. In one corner are the professional academics who are mostly agreed that, yes, it was Shakespeare, and in fact argue that by looking at the ‘situational’ evidence of how drama was produced at the time, we will see that Shakespeare as a dramatist collaborated with other writers, actors and publishers, and hence the entire issue of attributing the plays to one sole author who could have ‘known’ about Italy, legal terms and seafaring, falls flat.[viii] In the other corner, are the sceptics who are mostly amateur academics, and other than their suspicions that the professional academics have something to hide, simply do not believe that a Stratford son of a glover and actor could have written these plays, and therefore propose alternatives chosen largely from the upper strata of Elizabethan society. Into this mix, comes the theory that yes, the plays were written by a dramatist rather than a courtier, however, this dramatist was none other than Marlowe.

In 2002, the Marlowe Society donated a stain-glass window to Westminster Abbey, with a question mark besides the date of his death, a nod towards the theory that Marlowe was not killed on the 30 May 1593, and all the implications that suggestion carries with it. The Marlowe-is-the-real-Shakespeare theory had a long history, when in 1955 Calvin Hoffman wrote The Murder of the Man who was “Shakespeare” in which Marlowe flees to France and thence to Italy after a staged murder, in order to save him from execution. In Italy he writes plays and sonnets addressed to his patron-and-lover Thomas Walsingham, under the name of ‘Shakespeare’. Eventually he returns to stay at Walsingham’s Scadbury estate, to continue to write plays, which we now believe to be Shakespeare’s.

In his introduction, Hoffman describes his work as “a real-life literary ‘thriller,’ complete with murder, brawls, duels, and normal and abnormal sexuality.”[ix] Hoffman’s language betrays the real reason why Marlowe’s death continues to fascinate us: a ‘real-life literary thriller’ whose overlapping themes of sex, religious controversy, spying, political cover-up, and the premature death of a super-star playwright allows us to create our own narrative, our own piece of literature, out of the half-truths of the past. We will probably never know decisively why Fritzer killed Marlowe that evening, but as the variety of conspiracy theories show, it is certainly fun guessing and arguing about it.

Kate De Rycker
Globe Research Team

What do you think?

Tell us what you think about the arguments surrounding Christopher Marlowe’s death in the comments section below.

[i] F. Meres, Palladis Tamia (London; 1598) fols. 286v-287

[ii] For a transcript of the inquiry, see J. Leslie Hotson The Death of Christopher Marlowe, (London; Nonesuch Press, 1925)

[iii] G. Thurston, ‘Christopher Marlowe’s Death’, Contemporary Review (Mar/Apr. 1964) pp.1-12

[iv] S. Tannenbaum, The Assassination of Christopher Marlowe (New York; Tenney Press, 1928; reprinted New York; Shoestring Press, 1962) pp.41-2

[v] A term used by the critics Constance Brown Kuriyama and J.A. Downie

[vi] E. Smith, ‘The Shakespeare Authorship Debate Revisited’, Literature Compass, 5/3, 2006, pp.618-632.

[vii] J.A. Downie, ‘Marlowe, May 1593, and the ‘Must-Have’ Theory of Biography’, The Review of English Studies, (2007) 58 (235), pp.245-267, p.266

[viii] For more on the ‘Shakespeare authorship’ debate, see James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (London; Faber & Faber, 2010). See also the most recent addition to the debate, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy eds. Paul Edmondson & Stanley Wells, (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2013)

[ix] C. Hoffman, The Murder of the Man who was “Shakespeare” (New York; Julian Messner, 1955) p.viii